57 Million Americans Are Freelancers. The Unemployment System Is Completely Failing Us.

Graphic via Tania Lil for COURIER

By Danielle E. Owen

April 21, 2020

At the time of this writing, my application is still “processing”—that is, nearly 4 weeks later. 

As a full-time freelance travel writer, I have lost over $3,500 a month due to COVID-19. With the travel industry upside down, nearly all my clients have frozen their content needs indefinitely.

The day after Congress passed the CARES Act—the coronavirus emergency aid package fast-tracked by lawmakers and the White House to help Americans deal with the economic toll of the pandemic—I filed my unemployment application. The $2 trillion economic relief plan ensured workers will receive an additional $600 in unemployment benefits. The government also announced that self-employed individuals, freelancers, and/or independent contractors like myself would be eligible to receive these funds. 

At the time of this writing, my application is still “processing”—that is, nearly 4 weeks later. 

Across the country, servers are overwhelmed, unemployment offices are under-staffed, and record numbers of workers are fighting to get their applications in the queue. Freelancers—which include about 57 million Americans—looking to apply are finding themselves in a position where they struggle to get through the application without perjuring themselves or deeming themselves ineligible, often with no room to even explain why. And that is if they can even access the system in the first place. 

Part of the problem is that the unemployment system was not created for people like myself. The Florida application I filled out, for example, appears to have been haphazardly adjusted to account for those who are self-employed. The servers consistently timed out, kicking me back to the very beginning while I struggled to respond accurately to the questions that weren’t designed for a freelancer, including those regarding salary/lost income and previous hourly wages. 

Repeatedly, the website reminded me of the fines and jail time associated with unemployment insurance fraud.

On April 8, when attempting to submit my first claim for benefits despite my application still pending, the online unemployment system told me I needed to verify that I am willing and able to accept a full-time position if one comes along. 

That’s another issue. Almost everyone who freelances does so because they are not in a place to accept a full-time position if one comes along. This includes stay-at-home parents, people with disabilities, careers for family members with chronic health issues, and so many more. 

RELATED: Self-Employed Workers Are Struggling to Get Unemployment Benefits

According to the CARES Act, in order to be eligible for additional unemployment benefits from the federal government, applicants must be engaged in an “active search for employment that is appropriate in light of the employment available in the labor market, the individual’s skills and capabilities.”

But many freelancers don’t have the “capability” to sign on as a full-time employee at the drop of the hat. For most, it wouldn’t even make practical or financial sense to do so. Their skills and capabilities may not align with “accepting a full-time position.”

Barbara Fasano, for example, is a full-time singer who performed regularly at some of New York’s most prestigious clubs and concert halls—all of which have closed due to COVID-19. She no longer has any income. When she filed for unemployment on March 29 in New York state, the instructions were to fill out the application and call in to complete the claim. Fasano estimates she called the office 500 times, never getting through.

Weeks later, Fasano was told they were changing the system and she should receive a call to confirm her application within 72 hours. She’s currently still waiting for that call. 

Amanda Bloom, a freelance copywriter, is only making about 1/20 of the income she was earning prior to COVID-19. She filed for unemployment in Connecticut and has been approved. At the time of writing, she’s awaiting her first direct deposit. 

“I applied once, but then was advised to reapply and follow specific application instructions provided by the [Department of Labor], which seemed to ‘hack’ the existing system into allowing me to get unemployment compensation as quickly as possible,” Bloom said. “It seemed like myself, and maybe non-freelancers, too, are being siphoned through Connecticut’s Temporary Layoff/Vacation Shutdown payment program while the DOL builds new infrastructure for its unemployment program.”

Sarah Engstrand is another freelance writer who estimates she’s lost a majority of her income. When she filed for unemployment benefits in Texas, she was told there was a problem with her application and she needed to speak with someone over the phone. At the time of our interview, Engstrand said she couldn’t get through. 

“The phone lines have been busy, day and night. It has basically ground my application to a halt.”

“The phone lines have been busy, day and night,” she said. “It has basically ground my application to a halt.”

Alana S., a writer from Washington state, has had a similar experience. “I attempted to apply for unemployment as soon as the ruling passed and have checked in several times a week ever since.” 

When she first submitted her application, she received an automatic rejection for not having included hours from a Washington employer in her filing. “I sent a message, which was never answered, and tried calling several times, but the call was automatically disconnected each time saying the lines were full,” Alana said. “All of the appointment call times were taken for as far out as the site schedules.”

Washington eventually updated its Q&A section to acknowledge that the system is currently inadequate for self-employed persons, but they recommend freelancers submit an application regardless.

RELATED: Women Are Losing Their Jobs More Than Men Due To Coronavirus. Here’s Why.

Taylor King Holbrook and her husband are also independent contractors who tried to file for unemployment with no luck. “Going on the unemployment websites is so confusing for us since there isn’t a real place to show what we make weekly. If they looked at our tax forms it would be easy, but they don’t even have a place for it,”  said Holbrook, who lives in Napa, California, and rents a booth at a local salon as a hairstylist. 

Last week, California residents who were laid off from traditional W2 jobs were beginning to receive their additional $600, while freelancers were still being asked to wait. The California Employment Development Department’s FAQ currently advises that they are still building an entirely new system to support independent contractors, and that it will finally begin to take applications on April 28. That’s nearly a month after the CARES Act was signed into law. 

“Hopefully at the end of this,” Holbrook said, “the government will see how many Americans live this way and change the system, but right now we have to sit tight.”



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